King Richard III (1452-1485) Sequencing His Genome in 2014

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Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried“
—–William Shakespeare, written around 1592

 

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The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III (c. 1520, after a lost original), formerly belonging to the Paston family. Society of Antiquaries, London)

 

Richard III was King of England for two years, from 1483 until his death in 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty. His defeat at Bosworth Field, the last decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, symbolizes the end of the Middle Ages in England. He is the subject of the play Richard III by William Shakespeare. At the time of the death of his father and older brother, at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460, Richard, who was eight years old, was sent by his mother, the Duchess of York, to the Low Countries, accompanied by his elder brother George. At this time Richard was named Duke of Gloucester as well as being made a Knight of the Garter and a Knight of the Bath. Richard was then sent to Warwick’s estate at Middleham for his knightly training. Richard stayed at Middleham until early 1465, when he was twelve. During his adolescence, he developed idiopathic scoliosis.

 

Richard became involved in the rough politics of the Wars of the Roses at an early age. His brother, Edward appointed him the sole Commissioner of Array for the Western Counties in 1464, when he was 11. By the age of 17, he had an independent command. At 18 years, Richard played crucial roles in battles that resulted in Edward’s restoration to the throne in spring 1471.

 

Polydore Vergil and Thomas More write about King Richard, emphasizing Richard’s outward physical deformities as a sign of his inwardly twisted mind. More describes him as “little of stature, ill-featured of limbs, crook-backed and hard-favored of visage“. Vergil also says he was “deformed of body with one shoulder higher than the right“. Both emphasize that Richard was devious and flattering, while planning the downfall of both his enemies and supposed friends. Richard’s good qualities were his cleverness and bravery. All these characteristics are repeated by Shakespeare, who portrays him as having a hunch, a limp and a withered arm.

 

During Richard’s reign, the historian John Rous praised him as a “good lord“ who punished “oppressors of the commons“, adding that he had “a great heart“. After his death, Richard’s image was tarnished by propaganda fostered by his Tudor successors (who sought to legitimize their claim to the throne). Richard’s reputation as a promoter of legal fairness persisted, however. William Camden in his Remains Concerning Britain (1605) states that Richard, “albeit he lived wickedly, made good laws“. Francis Bacon also states that he was “a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people“. Despite this, the image of Richard as a ruthless power-grabber remained dominant in the 18th and 19th centuries.

 

Richard’s Council of the North, greatly improved conditions for Northern England, as commoners of that region were formerly without any substantial economic activity independent of London. Its descendant position was Secretary of State for the Northern Department. In December 1483, Richard instituted what later became known as the Court of Requests, a court to which poor people who could not afford legal representation could apply for their grievances to be heard. He also introduced bail in January 1484, to protect suspected felons from imprisonment before trial and to protect their property from seizure during that time. He founded the College of Arms in 1484, he banned restrictions on the printing and sale of books, and he ordered the translation of the written Laws and Statutes from the traditional French into English.

 

Richard III’s remains received burial without pomp, but the original tomb is believed to have been destroyed during the Reformation, and the remains were lost for more than five centuries. In 2012, an archaeological excavation was conducted on a city council car park using ground-penetrating radar on the site once occupied by Greyfriars, Leicester. The University of Leicester confirmed on 4 February 2013 that a skeleton found in the excavation was, beyond reasonable doubt, that of Richard III. This conclusion was based on a combination of evidence from radiocarbon dating, comparison with contemporary reports of his appearance, and a comparison of his mitochondrial DNA with that of two matrilineal descendants of Richard III’s eldest sister, Anne of York. The genomes of King Richard III and one of his family’s direct living descendants are to be sequenced in a project funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust and Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys. The project will be led by Dr Turi King of the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester. The aim is to shed new light on the ancestry and health of the last king of England to die in battle, and provide a complete archive of information that historians, scientists and the public will be able to access and use. His remains and any samples taken from them are scheduled to be reinterred and for this reason, Dr Turi King and colleagues plan to sequence his genome and make it freely accessible as a resource to researchers wishing to analyze and interrogate its genetic information.

 

Richard III will be one of only a small number of ancient individuals to have had their genomes sequenced. Others include Otzi the Iceman, Neanderthal specimens, a Denisovan and a Greenlandic Inuit and a hunter gatherer from Spain. Richard III will be the first ancient individual of known identity to have his genome sequenced. This will be carried out in collaboration with Professor Michael Hofreiter at the University of Potsdam.

 

Analysis of Richard III’s genome will allow insight into his genetic make-up, including susceptibility to certain diseases, hair and eye color, and as the genetic basis of other diseases becomes known, these too can be examined for. It is also expected to shed light on his genetic ancestry and relationship to modern human populations. In addition, next generation sequencing technologies will allow the researchers to detect DNA from other organisms such as pathogens. Whole genome sequencing from Otzi the Iceman found the first known human infection with Lyme disease, for example.

 

Dr King says: “It is an extremely rare occurrence that archaeologists are involved in the excavation of a known individual, let alone a king of England. At the same time we are in the midst of a new age of genetic research, with the ability to sequence entire genomes from ancient individuals and with them, those of pathogens that may have caused infectious disease. Sequencing the genome of Richard III is a hugely important project that will help to teach us not only about him, but foment discussion about how our DNA informs our sense of identity, our past and our future.“ In addition to sequencing the remains of Richard III, Dr King and colleagues will also sequence one of his living relatives, Michael Ibsen. An initial analysis of the DNA of his mitochondria — the batteries that power the cells in our bodies — which is passed down the maternal line, confirmed the genealogical evidence that Ibsen and Richard III shared the same lineage. A more detailed analysis is due to be published shortly. This new project will allow researchers to look for any other segments of DNA that these distant relatives share.

 

Researchers based at the University of Cambridge and the University of Leicester have also uncovered evidence that Richard III suffered from a roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides) infection, according to a Clinical Picture published in The Lancet. A team of researchers led by Dr Piers Mitchell, of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, UK, used a powerful microscope to examine soil samples taken from the skeleton’s pelvis and skull, as well as from the soil surrounding the grave. The microscope revealed multiple roundworm eggs in the soil sample taken from the pelvis, where the intestines would have been situated in life. However, there was no sign of eggs in soil from the skull, and very few eggs in the soil that surrounded the grave, suggesting that the eggs found in the pelvis area resulted from a genuine roundworm infection during his life, rather than from external contamination by the later dumping of human waste in the area.

 

Roundworms are parasitic nematodes, which infect humans when people ingest their eggs via contaminated food, water, or soil. Once eaten, the eggs hatch into larvae, which migrate through the tissues of the body to the lungs where they mature. They then crawl up the airways to the throat to be swallowed back into the intestines, where they can grow into adults around a foot long. Roundworm infection is thought to be one of the commonest health conditions in the world, affecting up to a quarter of all people globally, although it is rare in the UK today.

 

According to Dr Mitchell, “Our results show that Richard was infected with roundworms in his intestines, although no other species of intestinal parasite were present in the samples we studied. We would expect nobles of this period to have eaten meats such as beef, pork and fish regularly, but there was no evidence for the eggs of the beef, pork or fish tapeworm. This may suggest that his food was cooked thoroughly, which would have prevented the transmission of these parasites.“ Dr Jo Appleby, Lecturer in Human Bioarchaeology at the University of Leicester, UK, said: “Despite Richard’s noble background, it appears that his lifestyle did not completely protect him from intestinal parasite infection, which would have been very common at the time.“

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In addition to abdominal infection, Richard III may have undergone painful medical treatments for his spinal curvature, according to research from a University of Leicester researcher. The remains of Richard III discovered by University of Leicester archaeologists revealed that the King suffered from severe scoliosis, which he probably developed in early adolescence. Scoliosis — a lateral or side-to-side curvature of the spine — can be a very painful condition to live with. Dr Mary Ann Lund, of the University’s School of English, has carried out research into the kinds of scoliosis treatments available at the time Richard III was alive. But some of the treatments practiced in the late medieval period would have themselves caused sufferers a lot of anguish. Among the “cures“ practiced was traction — the same principle on which “the Rack“ worked as an instrument of torture. The patient would be tied under the armpits and round the legs. The ropes were then pulled at either end, often on a wooden roller, to stretch the patient’s spine. This treatment would probably have only been available to those who could afford it. Richard III would certainly have been able to afford the highest levels of medical care available — and his physicians would have been well aware of the standard “traction“ methods for treating the condition.

 

Dr Lund charted the influence of Greek philosopher Hippocrates — who developed early prototype methods of dealing with spinal disorders — to the 11th century Persian polymath Avicenna, who utilized handed down treatments from the Greeks. These treatises on medicine and philosophy were well regarded in Medieval Europe. Avicenna’s documents on using traction in scoliosis treatment would have been widely read and practiced by doctors in Richard III’s lifetime. Avicenna also advocated the massage techniques practiced in Turkish baths, and herbal applications, as treatments for back disorders. In the longer term, patients might wear a long piece of wood or metal in an attempt to straighten their back. Dr Lund said: “Scoliosis is a painful illness, and Richard would have been in quite a lot of pain on a daily basis. These methods could also have been very painful — but people would have expected treatments to be unpleasant. Medical practices could exacerbate conditions rather than improving them. These treatments would have only been open to people in the upper echelons. Richard would have probably received these treatments because he was a member of the nobility.

 

Later methods of treatment for scoliosis included the orthosis, which was developed by French physician Ambroise Pare in the late 16th century. This was a tightly fitting metal corset for treating scoliosis made by an armourer, which would have been worn by patients to brace the skeleton in an attempt to correct the curvature of the spine. Source: The University of Leicester; ScienceDaily.com


Journal Reference: Piers D Mitchell, Hui-Yuan Yeh, Jo Appleby, Richard Buckley. The intestinal parasites of King Richard III. The Lancet, 2013; DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)61757-2

 

Miscellaneous

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English actor David Garrick as Richard III just before the battle of Bosworth Field. His sleep having been haunted by the ghosts of those he has murdered, he wakes to the realization that he is alone in the world and death is imminent. The painting, David Garrick as Richard III (1745), is by William Hogarth. Richard III is a historical play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in approximately 1592. It depicts the Machiavellian rise to power and subsequent short reign of Richard III of England.

 

At the battle of Bosworth Field, Lord Stanley (who is also Richmond’s stepfather) and his followers desert Richard’s side, whereupon Richard calls for the execution of George Stanley, Lord Stanley’s son. This does not happen, as the battle is in full swing, and Richard is left at a disadvantage. Richard is soon unhorsed on the field at the climax of the battle, and cries out, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!“ Richmond kills Richard in the final duel. Subsequently, Richmond succeeds to the throne as Henry VII, and marries Princess Elizabeth from the House of York.

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